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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Business or Pleasure?

I Am Giving a Talk to Essex County (New Jesey) Librarians

and that leads me to ask you all a question: what is your definition of pleasure reading? You personally, and you as a professional who deals (in some fashion) with young readers and books. It seems to me two more questions lurk within this one: what are the pleasures reading affords? and what can clearly be definined as not pleasure reading — as the opposite of reading for enjoyment? The obvious answer to the second question is assignment reading — you read a book because your teacher (boss, parent, rabbi, financial advisor) tells you to. Assignment reading is designed to enhance your skills in some way, to advance your training — the issue is not whether you like it, but whether you now know more. A Spanish grammar book, like an Algebra text, is more or less pure assignment. If what I have said so far is true, then pleasure reading is defined strictly by the fact that you like turning the pages — whatever is on there appeals to you.

But here is where I begin to question these categories, in two ways. For some kids, gaining skills is a pleasure. They derive two kinds of pleasure from the activity — a sense of personal mastery, and the pleasure of being able to act in the world. Take for example the manual they have to read while getting drivers ed. They are learning how to drive, and anticipating the pleasure of driving a car. The manual is pure assignment reading, or is it? Same for the kid who likes mastering a language, or developing his skills in math, or learning how to shoot a rifle, or — as I recall as a kid, how to run various basketball plays. The book is a pleasure because it gives me a way to gain skills in an area that matter to me. A hobby or "how to care for you pet" book is yet another obvious case. 

So if a book can be a pleasure book simply by imparting skills, then the issue is different. An assignment book offers skills someone else believes you need. A pleasure book offers skill you want to obtain. I think that is a meaningful distinction — but it is not how the issue is usually framed. I cannot escape my sneaking suspicion that in the 18th and 19th centuries when women in the West had few opportunities to act in the world, pleasure reading in areas they controlled (schools and libraries) became associated with the interior life, with fiction. And I believe that structure of thinking, which no longer matches the experiences of girls or boys, still lingers to this day.

What do you think?  


  1. GraceAnne Ladyhawk says:

    I read for a living. I read books I review, books I teach, books I need to read for teaching, books my colleagues tell me I should read.

    To read for pleasure means I pick up a book that has none of those things attached to it. It is a voluptuous pleasure to read something I am not teaching, reviewing, or studying.

    The last batch of books so read are Deborah Grabien’s Haunted Ballad series of mysteries.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    So the differential is the motivation for reading, not the nature of the reading material, right?